Behavioural and Cognitive Approaches to Learning

Compare and contrast two perspectives in psychology and the ways in which they study learning. Illustrate you answer with specific research examples from Chapter 3 of Book 1.

There are a number of perspectives regarding psychology that explore the nature of learning. However, for this assignment the two perspectives chosen are the behavioural approach to learning and the cognitive approach to learning. The behavioural approach to learning involves the observation of behaviour in conjunction to the environment. The behaviourist approach to category learning was introduced by Watson and expanded upon in principle by Pavlov‘s and later Skinner’s research. These formed the two general perspectives in conditioning. Classical conditioning was introduced by Pavlov (Miell et al, 2002). Pavlov observed that in relation to certain stimuli an animal’s behaviour could be manipulated through association. Using the animal’s typical response to hunger, it was indicated that there was a crucial relationship between a stimulus and a learned response. His work indicated that an animal’s natural reflex to hunger could be conditioned through an association to a manipulated neutral stimulus (Miell, 2002). This manipulated response was named the conditioned response. This relationship formed the basic premise to the concept of psychological learning from the perspective of classical conditioning. Operant conditioning introduced by Skinner suggested a notion of interactive learning rather than responsive learning. Using reinforcement, Skinner manipulated the environment of some Rats to see to what extent their behaviour could be shaped through conditioned learning which indicated levels of intelligence rather than that of pure responsive learning (Skinner, 1948/1990). The rats in his experiment changed their behaviours through techniques such as positive reinforcement. This provided evidence for the nature of learning as being one of interaction rather than purely adherence to responding to stimuli. From both of these perspectives that form the behavioural approach we can see that shaping and manipulation of the external environment as being paramount to the nature of learning. Although observable through behaviour this approach does not in any way attempt to incorporate the nature of the individual within the learning process.

Get Help With Your Essay

If you need assistance with writing your essay, our professional essay writing service is here to help!

Find out more

Contrastingly, the cognitive approach focuses entirely upon thought processes and the faculties associated with the conceptual mind to in an attempt to draw out and understand the nature of learning. The cognitive approach addresses the processes involved in categorising, generalising and conceptualising the external world and how these concepts form perspectives. The cognitive approach to learning typically concerns itself with the faculties of memory and categorisation and how they relate to perception (Miell, 2002). The role of perception with relation to memory and categorisation within learning formed the interest of the psychologist Bruner. He devised a test to measure and explore the nature by which people constructed categories. Vastly different to operant and classical conditioning, Bruner’s findings suggested that there was an intelligent procedure in operation during learning that performed by way of hypothesis testing. This was indicated as being understood through stages of either acceptance or rejection based upon an intelligent process of trial testing (Bruner et al, 1956). The experiment gave the subject a set of pictures each portraying a variety of shapes. These formed the different conditions to be measured. Some of these pictures shared the same number of shapes, some of them shared the same colour of shapes and others shared the same number of borders surrounding the shapes. In each condition the shapes were marginally different. From the findings of his experiment, Bruner suggested that there were two forms of learning that could be identified in the learning process. These were named successive and conservative scanning (Bruner et al, 1956). Successive scanning was the type of learning that used the trial process of attempting one hypothesis at a time before acceptance or rejection. Conservative scanning revealed a deeper form of learning process that categorised certain classes of type before carrying out the accepting or eliminating of hypotheses. The latter type of category learning is subsequently a much faster and more efficient process. However, not everyone within the field of the cognitive approach to learning accepts the notion of hypothesis testing. Many researchers and theorists related to the field have argued that categories are an innate factor and so hypothesis testing is not required in the learning process (Fodor & Chomsky, 1980). The main implication in this idea is that empirical category learning may not be done with the rejection of hypothesis but with the rejection of the externally governed conceptualisation of the external world. In essence, it is suggested in this approach to cognitive learning that we may need a new conceptual model for cognitive learning theory rather than that have it depend upon the convenience of presuming hypothesis testing (Fodor & Chomsky, 1980).

This internal theoretic argument within the cognitive approach does strengthen the behavioural emphasis that is put on the limitations of the psychological investigation. Essentially, the conceptual structure of the mind is open to interpretation as subjectivity is so very difficult to measure. As the behaviourist approach only uses observable findings it can be said that it does not to suffer from the impracticalities of this vast theoretical debate. However, this debate regarding the operation of the mind with relation to the learning process is perhaps very worthy of investigation as ending it, and thus defining learning, as an observable behaviour is hugely reductive. In both of the approaches covered in this assignment we have seen that there is a fundamental difference in cognitive and behavioural based learning. The behavioural approaches are fundamentally interested in the nature of stimuli and how behaviour can be shaped through associative learning. Whereas the cognitive approach is fundamentally interested in how the conceptual mind comes to categorise the external world and thus learn from it. Although both approaches form contrasting view points both agree on the fundamental principle that learning is an essential part of psychological life that is formed in correlation to the external environment. Essentially, it can be said that both approaches are vastly different. However, it should also be said that both address the individual’s relationship to the physical world with regards to learning.


Bruner, J, S., Goodnow, J, J., and Austin, G, A., (1956) A Study of Thinking New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Chomsky, N., and Fodor, J, A., (1980) Statement of the Paradox, in Piatelli – Palmarini, M. (ed.).

Miell, D., Phoenix, A. and Thomas, K. (2002) Mapping Psychology 1. Milton Keynes, Open University.

Skinner, B, F., (1946/1990) Walden Two London: Collier Macmillan.


Most Used Categories

EssayHub’s Community of Professional Tutors & Editors
Tutoring Service, EssayHub
Professional Essay Writers for Hire
Essay Writing Service, EssayPro
Professional Custom
Professional Custom Essay Writing Services
In need of qualified essay help online or professional assistance with your research paper?
Browsing the web for a reliable custom writing service to give you a hand with college assignment?
Out of time and require quick and moreover effective support with your term paper or dissertation?